When and when not to use the term habibi: a definitive guide to greeting people in the UAE

The Arabic language is full of terms of endearments; the key is knowing when to use them

UAE social life is full of terms of endearment. Getty Images
UAE social life is full of terms of endearment. Getty Images

As the Radisson Blu Hotel, Dubai Waterfront celebrates its one-year anniversary this month, it's making one key change. The hotel has banned staff from using the terms sir, madam and "ma’am/sir", with manager David Allen explaining it was part of the hotel’s drive to be the “friendliest” in the country.

This means staff are instructed to use first names when interacting with guests. If memories are fuzzy – which is totally understandable when you have hundreds of faces to remember – they can use the term Mr or Ms, followed by the guest's last name.

While the move has been hailed as forward thinking when it comes to the hotel industry, it is actually in line with the UAE's societal norms.

As a long-term resident of Abu Dhabi, it only took me a few months to recognise that intimacy is a key factor in most relationships here, both personal and professional.

Whether it’s a catch-up over dinner or a breakfast meeting, terms of endearment are frequently exchanged between friends and colleagues in a way that wouldn’t perhaps be appropriate in western countries.

I found this out the hard way during my last trip back to Australia during a dinner with “the boys". In explaining a point to a friend, I began with “my dear Murad”. He was totally weirded out.

That said, even in the more relaxed social spheres of the region there are rules of engagement.

For example, you can’t be dropping the H bomb (habibi or habibti) in the first sitting. Also, in an Arab society where seniority is respected, there are a few honorifics you can use to gain the appreciation and kudos of your elders.

Here are 10 terms to use to widen your UAE phrasebook:

Aamu and Ammati (Aa-mu and Am-ma-ti:) These mean uncle or auntie, and are to be used with people you're familiar with. Those roughly 20 years above your age qualify for a’amu or a'mati status. Anyone more advanced in age should be referred to as jaddu or jaddati, which mean grandfather and grandmother respectively.

Bash Muhandis (Bash mu-han-dis): An old and charming handle from Egypt which dates back to the country’s previous Ottoman rule. Bash is short for “basha”, a term used by the Turks for those of a high rank, while muhandis is an Arabic word which means engineer. Bash muhandis was initially used to address qualified engineers and architects – now it is used for anyone that’s handy with a screwdriver.

Boss: A term of respect used to those often performing a service, whether labour-intensive or in the hospitality industry. For example, you would perhaps call the attendant filling your gas tank or the waiter ‘boss.’

Duktoor and duktoora: You don’t have to be a medical professional to be a doctor in the Arab world. With a high regard for education instilled in the culture, this designator is also used to honour those who have completed a PhD. The title immediately bestows a level of respect reserved to society’s intelligentsia.

Hajji (male) and hajja (female): A term of respect used for those who have completed the Islamic pilgrimage of Hajj. Once they return from their journey, it is customary to call them hajji or hajja followed by their first name - for example, Hajji Ahmed or Hajja Fatima. You can eventually resort to normal first-name basis, but for the first few weeks stick to the term. The person just completed one of the most important and gruelling tasks of their faith, they deserved to be respected.

Habibi (male) and habibti (female): Both mean darling, and can be used with friends and good colleagues. It is one of the most widely used terms of endearments in the region, and chances are they are first Arabic words learned by a new arrival. But don’t drop it too casually. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily mean intimacy and there is still a code of respect to adhere to. Don’t call your manager or professional acquaintance habibi or habibti, unless you are certain of the quality of your relationship.

My dear: The title sounds rather archaic and too heavy for a chilled conversation. Hence, it is a good idea to be conservative in its usage. It is to be deployed on a case-by-case basis and only to those who address you using that term first.

Ustadhi (male) and Ustadhati (female) [Uss-tad-thi (male) and Uss-ta-dha-ti (female)]: Translated as ‘my teacher', ustadhi or ustadhati is a Gulf honorific widely used to address senior citizens. You can either use it singularly, or add on to the person’s first name. E.g. ‘Shukran ustadhi/ustadhati,’ or ‘ustadi Ahmed/ustadhati Fatima”

Ya albi or ya roohi: While habibi/habibti is a typically Pan-Arab term, ya albi or ya roohi are mostly used by those hailing from the Levant. But once again, with ya albi meaning ‘my heart’ and ya roohi ‘my soul’, they should only be used with close friends and associates.

Ya rayal (ya ray-yal) An Emirati term frequently used in male conversations. Translating to ‘oh man’, it is often heard in friendly banter or as term of exasperation during arguments.

Updated: January 28, 2019 05:59 PM


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